Friday, August 15, 2014

For Beauty’s Sake: Poetry and Activism (Keynote Address, Perth Poetry Festival 2014)

by John Kinsella

I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country and the non-ownership of this land.

Poetry is so often less about ‘Art’ and more about ‘activism’ than many like to think. The poem that captures a glimpse of ‘nature’, or human loss, or reconstitutes a family memory through an object found while going through the belongings of a deceased relative, might seem to be little to do with activism but everything to do with art. That is, to do with the art of compacting, containing and adding ‘depth’/layering,/nuance to an idea so it creates conduits into other ways of seeing — creating the poem-object. But for me, rather than the ‘artiness of art’, I am interested in the poem’s potential for resistance, not its compliance with a status quo, not as the production of what will become an objet d’art, a thing intended for wealth accumulation and pleasure. Of course, a piece of art can escape its creator’s (or buyer’s) intentions and become subversive through context.

Poetry works the contradictions, the paradoxes, and brings the incongruous and contiguous into alignment, rendering them into shape, pattern and interpretability. That’s art, and this art is about aesthetics, about a hierarchising of perception into a spectrum of ‘taste’.

I’ve never cared much for taste, and most of us would agree beauty is subjective, which doesn’t have to lead us to say aesthetics can contain such difference, because the issue of ‘beauty’, to me, shouldn’t come up in the first place. Or rather, ‘beauty’ as thing-in-itself. Because if our intent is to oppose beauty to, say, destruction, and use it as a symbol of integrity, liberty, and agency, then it becomes something outside the limitations of taste — in fact, to the arbiters of taste, it might well be ‘tasteless’. Beauty in this case, becomes a political point, an act of defiance in the face of damage, destruction, and disempowerment. Beauty becomes a symbol of resistance and possibly its paradox. That’s a point-of-view issue, or maybe it’s actually an issue of empowerment?

Does the mining company, such as Bauxite Alumina Joint Ventures, wanting to create a massive open-cut mine at Morangup that would reach to Wundowie almost twenty kilometres away, see the destruction of habitat that it will wreak, in terms of destruction of beauty? Of course not. They see their promised ‘rehabilitation’ of land as a kind of beauty; they see the aluminium goods we consume as a kind of beauty; they see wealth-creation as a kind of beauty. No doubt, like Rio Tinto’s collaboration with the Black Swan Theatre Company, they’ll target ‘the arts’ in their desire to extend their largesse, to manufacture beauty that we can all digest as art.

And poetry? Poetry is occasionally offered funding directly and indirectly by such companies. It’s easy to get caught out, so we need to be wary and understand where the money’s coming from; often, it’s hidden. Business mostly wishes to take beauty and turn it into a form of capitalist activism, they wish to take art — all your arts — and make them subservient to this notion of beauty. It’s called advertising... or propaganda!

But if we accept that the integrity of land, that country itself is intrinsically beautiful, then in the name of beauty we might claim all evocations of natural beauty in poetry as an activist moment, as a resistance to the mining industry version. So poets describing a kangaroo paw, poets evoking a sunset (with or without pollution coloration), poets noticing a birdcall and implanting it in their own aubade, their own dawn love-poem, become activist in a way that resists the consuming of country enacted by these corporate miners.

So activism in poetry is often implicit, unless you celebrate goods, fetishise your possessions for the sake of them being your possessions. No amount of irony can save the poem that’s built around the actual ordering and acquisition of material goods for the literal sake of ownership.

But the activism I am interested in tonight is possibly more direct. It’s a matter of working lyrical and rhetorical registers, of bringing the figurative and didactic into conversation. The activist poem can traverse the spatiality from ‘celebratory nature poem’ all the way to the damning rant, the poem that simply says, in essence, that ‘All mining companies are fucked! They serve their own purposes. The rock they crush was a home to animals and plants. The rock they crush was a story...’ and so on. A poem doesn’t need to be stuck in the consistency of diction, in registers of display, in the packaging that more accords with Rio Tinto’s glossy arts policy. And if it does deploy ‘regular diction’, ‘predictable’ metrics, and a pat rhyming scheme, let its subject matter challenge the very conventions from which such approaches to poetry arise. Or let it connect with them, with the aural roots, the aids to memory that fomented the patterning of words into lyrics, into combinations of lines that become memorable.

Either way, let the poem protest against the constraints that industry, the military, religion, and government would impose on poets, poetry and community. Poems speak for themselves however hard they might rant, and maybe that’s what the governments and corporate cultures fear the most: their unpredictability, their capacity to make non-violent radical change.

It took the American poet Muriel Rukeyser in 1938 to help articulate in ‘The Book of the Dead’ the horror of the deaths of hundreds of labourers from silicosis after they were forced to mine silica without masks when excavating the hydroelectric Hawks Nest Tunnel at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia from 1927 to the late 30s. That’s poetry as direct, unremitting activism. Is there beauty in the poetry? — maybe of a sort touched upon above, but certainly not that packaged by Union Carbide, the company at the centre of the disaster, or any other prodigal of global corporate capitalism. The beauty of product, the beauty of modernity hawked by such companies is at variance with life, habitat, and health of the biosphere. Rukeyser wrote, investigated, reported:

[see her poem...]

I’d like to finish with a few lines from a poem entitled ‘Mining Company’s Hymn’ from the 1977 collection Jagardoo by Nyungar poet and playwright Jack Davis, whose poetry I am lucky enough to be editing into a collected volume at the moment:

The government is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
They let me search in the Aboriginal reserves
which leads me to many riches
for taxation’s sake.
Though I wallow in the valley of wealth I will fear no weevil
because my money is safe in the bank
vaults of the land,
and my Government will always comfort me.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Polysituated(ness): international regionalism

By John Kinsella

For the last 18 months I have been working on a book on ‘place’. I was recently invited to (what looks like a very interesting) event to discuss ‘home and away’. I think it is part of a series located in different cities. Anyway, that’s an aside to my present point, which is not a critique of that event, but rather a comment that comes out of the issue central to my critique of the idea of ‘place’.

I do not believe one is ever ‘at home’, because home is composed of so many variables, so many intersecting, bisecting and even parallel lines, that the expression only serves as a very general ‘location’ device that evokes certain sentiments around particular geographic co-ordinates. My problem with ‘home’ is that it is too often deployed as a term of ownership rather than belonging, and even when belonging is a passionate component, it is so as a declaration of exclusion, possession and security that necessarily denies such claims by (some) others. Who belongs ‘at home’? Those with whom we grow up, whom we allow and admit, who came before us (and how far back)?

I argue that we can only discuss connection, belonging, participation, and even visiting or departure, in terms of polysituatedness. We are always polysituated. If we are talking of where we primarily live (though we might go away, travel, or relocate and return every now and again), we are talking about so many different notions of connection and alienation that ‘home’ simply doesn’t answer the condition. At Jam Tree Gully we are talking of the idea of a ‘block’, the idea of fences or absence of fences, where a space begins and ends, overlaps with near and far neighbours, the act of accepting visitors, intrusion by the Shire (and its roadside herbicides), relationship with the town (some distance away) where we shop and collect mail, and the relationship of this town to regional centre. Then there are animals and plants (endemic and ‘introduced’), topographies and histories (dispossession, ‘settler’, ‘claim’ and so on), all of which create alternative configurations of that place.

Place is never static, and place is always defined in contradictory as well as complementary ways by outsiders and insiders, by those with vested interests and those indifferent. The horror of bauxite mining companies trying to develop their ‘claim’ south of Toodyay is a case in point: their configuration of a home that is not theirs in terms of dwelling (they can’t live in their proposed excavation), and a home which is the colonial target of a multinational conglomerate, is redefined in terms of run-on ‘local’ benefits for those who claim it as their place of dwelling. Shires love such propaganda to fuel their own dreams of personal and collective profit focused through improvement to living conditions (theirs). As such pressures come to bear on place, ‘home’ unravels into the polysituated: we take in information about our condition from sources far from our dwelling, well and truly outside locale. We create intersections with dialogues in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. At the same time, racist and exclusionary forces are at work in confining and enforcing sub-communal notions of home (to keep it ‘white’ or to resist certain religions or to keep out ‘greenies’). We polysituate where we sit, as much as when we travel or if we have more than one ‘home-place’. I am never ‘away’ because I am concurrently present in a nuanced and polyvalent discussion of belonging and exclusion.

One is cast as ‘UnAustralian’ for opposing the mining industry; living in a corner of Europe you’re asked, ‘when will you be going home?’ even if you have ancestry in that place. We live at a single point and all other points at once: the damage done locally affects the wellbeing of the entire biosphere. That’s the core of international regionalism: respect for regional integrity (whether we claim ‘region’ as home or not), and a desire for international dialogue. I celebrate difference and respect the customs of the local, but I also know that ‘home’ is a construct that suits the coloniser, as the colonised are forced to have loss of dwelling become a definition of home where other ways of conceptualising connection (e.g. totemic) are rehybridised to accord with western colonial notions of participation, connection… and ownership or non-ownership.

This is the way the disgraceful intervention into indigenous communities worked in Australia: home security becomes security for the nation to control and exploit what it sees as its materials of presence (people, minerals, soil, air, animals, plants etc). That’s home. And then the complicit (so very many of us) leave and look back with nostalgia, judgement, new knowledge, and still the desire to own memories and even the future of where one is not literally. They, also, are polysituating. It’s not always a generative and positive paradigm.

Polysituatedness works as a model within international regionalism for recollections and embodiments of earlier places of dwelling in one’s life, a family’s existence, or that of an entire community. When migrants describe their present ‘home’ as entailing aspects of their previous ‘home’, or refugees while embracing ‘opportunities’ in their new place/zone of enacting ‘living’, recall what they have been forced to leave behind and seek to recreate the complexities of that previous space in the new space, a polyvalent model of belonging is created.

Polysituatedness ‘explains’ these chronologies and spatialities, but takes things further by questioning the very nature of origins, birthplace, allegiance and loyalty, rights by soil, and other expressions (legal or conjectural) of connection to a particular set of geographical co-ordinates and their claimant communities. It also allows for a way of seeing entirely outside ‘claim’: connection through association, or even connection through ‘place’ itself making a claim on him/her/them. To occupy space and identify space are necessarily acts of definition, acts of establishing presence. To disrupt and twist Michel de Certeau’s words (yet again — unplanning in my/this case!):

‘The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them. It inserts its multitudinous references and citations into them (social models, cultural mores, personal factors’ (The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall, University of California Press, 1988, p.101).’

It’s the ‘shadows and ambiguities’ of ‘home’ that undo rather than reinforce its claims to certainty, permanence, and as a reference point, but they are also the generative, creative and spiritual values of any such desires. Dwelling resists these, place embodies them, and space is the place of enactment.

From the city to the country, from pathways to trails, the rhetorical path is broken inside and outside the discourse. Parkour breaks the established paths and permissions through urban space, the sheep that breaks its desire line trails to the farm dam to escape, with its lamb, the predating fox, changes the rules it has established within the rules the farmer has established within the rules survey has established, and all the while there are preceding laws and rules of movement and belonging that are being negotiated without awareness (and sometimes with).

A brutal example of breaking the lines using ‘freedom’ as the outcome would be the trail-bike or four-wheel drive thrashing its way through bush, or following kangaroo trails and damaging peripheral vegetation. The ‘freedom’ of the place, of making use of, say, a broader definition of and catchment for ‘home’ (i.e. not where they dwell but within the region where the ‘participants live’) by these parties, is an enhancement of their notion of freedom and belonging, adding value to their sense of home, while diminishing it in the animals and plants, in the ecos itself, and in those humans who live in something more akin to a symbiotic relationship with that place.

Movement through place becomes the constant in the Polysituated equation as one leaves the dwelling in pursuit of food (or receives it via an online delivery service or has a friend pick up a take-away and bring it over, etc), or as one contacts the water board or electricity company or phone company to bring in to one’s space the allowances and opportunities of extended place, broader community. The lines are always alive, right to our transference to the funeral parlour in death, even if the ashes come back as a quasi-final statement of belonging.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In memoriam Niall Lucy

Poem by John, posted by Tracy

You can also read John's commemorative prose piece about Niall in The West Australian.

Pomo Elegy for Niall Lucy

Textures of low-fi
magnify space;
closure an error
of programming.

You get these jokes,
irreverent as Venice,
drinking over tables,
crooning dirges, hair

shining like shook foil
without God-fearing overtones.
But spirit — spirit in buckets,
winklepicker semantics.

I sit in a poorly-lit room
and see glitz on windows,
the scales of justice
reverberating Nick Cave.

All those overlays...
in there, indelible.
And death is more than:
an embedding no military

will ever get hold of,
no rightwing shockjock
bed down; I’m with you
all the way. Out of it.

You trashed the door
of the mining boom
and went straight
to the basement:

reclaimed The Cliffe
for music, those early tapes
resonating louder than pinballs.
The jarrah house that stands

as urban-rural element
in the folklore of rock,
your occasional drives
into the bush, giving

the nod to bushrangers.
And when all hell broke
loose, you compiled
the mix-tape par excellence.

Bartleby is the script,
and the obsessive Ahab
a trick of light off Fremantle.
Elvis was glorious in rhinestones,

but a Freo sunset... those pines.
But you’ve played the album,
written the liner notes: I’ll call
you out, litcrit’s ultimate

frontman! In this fiction
a poem is neon smoke,
and the rhythm section
never claims a Beat.

But it’s as true as Bon
belting it out by the sea,
the navigation lights off Fremantle,
the drinkers’ raucous chorus.

And I never had the chance
to tell you that I know who Pynchon is,
and where he hangs out...
those corner shops of Westralia.

John Kinsella

Monday, June 2, 2014

Anti-‘Craft’ in the Context of Western Capitalist Cultures

by John Kinsella

There's a major issue around notions and terms such as 'craft'. I am concerned with the way 'craft' in present discourse is a mode and articulation of reactionary constraint, and fear of innovation, and embodies a pro-aesthetics control (I am anti-aesthetics) over how we see and experience. It mediates experience, gives it a setting, and validates it through rule-compliance to fit a world order that has long suppressed liberty and fairness.

'Craft' is used by the retro-'lyrical' and 'clarity of meaning' poets as a sign for permanence and validation of text as '(the) object'. Now, that statement wouldn't be 'feeling' enough, but in the end, it's what happens when so-called 'craft' (often limited and narrow in its actuality) is used as a tool of measurement (and competition!). It is curatorial and reductive process/procedure, and it's about fetishised production values. It purports to be about the unique handmade object, but is actually about marketing and controlling the market in such objects. It's more production line than they'd like to think. Their problem: how to get around the mass production of books (even if they are small print-runs for poetry), and to have the privileged legitimised object created for the 'art' of it. This is compounded by that neo-romantic sense of being discovered, of not putting it out there but still letting everyone know of one's 'genius'... these are the dissemblings of the craft/ers. They want the attention but deny they look for attention. Politics stumps them because the point of a politics is to articulate a position re something. The 'craft'/ing affirms the power of the guild, and operates as a sinecure: the makers of 'craft' as criteria for judging the worth of a poem approve of craft in others and give it the official stamp of approval, or deny that stamp, but always the ones who cite craft position themselves as authorities and interpreters of the past. They use the past to validate and valorise the present, and to concentrate power in (their own) hands.

The idea that language, which constantly changes, should be constrained by a set of rules of good behaviour and a straitjacket of form and function, I entirely reject — that's why I wrote the book Shades of the Sublime, as a refutation of aesthetics, 'craft', and the encultured rules of prosody. What bothers me is that a wide group of Australian poets still hold a cringe re 'craft' — that they can only prove their mettle and prowess through subscribing to the rules of english-language cultural precedent. If they choose to do that, fine, but notice how they wish to impose their 'model' on all else. They wish to teach it, judge it, and ensure its permanence to the exclusion of whatever threatens (they allow a little innovation around the edges, but only, in the end, if the primacy of their activities is publicly and even privately acknowledged... it's a paranoid reaction while in denial of paranoid readings that reveal the theft, bankruptcy, and disrespect in so much non-indigenous culturising in Australia they are sourcing). Sure, they inflect their 'craft' with the 'local' (at best, it's a kind of new wave Jindyworobakism that's in denial), but in the end they are about chronologies of belonging, a community of heritage and projected (future) values. Values... a disturbing and deeply conservative notion.

I think all poetry is an extension of memory, and recalling memory is 'craft'. However, the application of that recall is where i'd depart from those I feel are too conservative — to deploy an extra article is not 'sloppiness', but a choice about speech and its implications. repetition isn't an accident, but a form of refrain (not a replacement, but a diversion, a tangent in the sense I mean it — too many 'students' over-edit their work and basically destroy anything challenging it had to say formally and/or thematically... the university creative writing 'craft workshop' has brought sameness, a lack of political purpose (it has to comply with the university/institution in the end), and merely highlights their teachers as exemplary models... disturbing).

Obviously, one is always calling on precedent and the (pre)existing rules of prosody and certainly literary texts when creating a poem — that's the 'template' (I use early writing not to extend but to undo... some seem to think this is disrespectful, but most of the texts I use had already done this to other texts in their time, directly or indirectly!) — but the template alters as it is tested by language and the socio-political conditions under which it's existing. There's a worrying cultural purity at work in this 'craft'-emphasis that also bothers me — rather, all 'crafts' from all cultural spaces should be acknowledged (I am not saying appropriated, but I am saying that an awareness of them should feed into the 'language' of locality and experience one is part of by choice or default)... comparative literature came about not through a desire for more entertainment, but as a way of finding how common ground does or doesn't work, and how we might translate the universal experience into the localities of 'history', place and language without disrespect (or, at least, attempting to minimise disrespect).

I would use Lorenz's summation of chaos in a different way from the 'craftsmen' and 'craftswomen', I'd imagine. Firstly, I'd take on the gendering and its implications. Then I'd break the constraint of rhythm which I don't recognise as a given, a universal. I think the bending, substitution and slippage (and downright wrecking) of rhythm is a vital 'tool' (ha! craft?) in dismantling the status quo of aesthetics and enslavement to a hierarchising of existence (as soon as I see 'good' and 'bad' I am distressed). Chaos rather becomes a way of ensuring a future can't be approximated through 'craft' because, so far, 'craft' has underpinned the destruction of the biosphere. Further, 'craft' has underpinned war, imperialism, and police states. 'Craft' gives the artisan an excuse to ply his/er trade in destructive causes. Craft creates degrees of separation. And then there's the quantum leap from 'craft' to 'lyric'.

I am sometimes portrayed as the 'enemy' of the lyric. I am not, but I am a resister of the poetics of the unified self and of the so-called lyrical-I. No secret there — I’ve been saying it for decades. But it's not just for the hell of it. It's because I see that poetics as the vehicle through which the poet becomes the mouthpiece for the status quo, for the concentration of power and its dire consequences for liberty and the actual 'self' (individual and communal). It's one of the reasons I find artistic collaboration so generative — it affirms and denies subjectivity at once, and though it can generate its own compliances and even impositions re power, it at least suggests that the unified self is questionable, if only by the act alone. But even that's challengeable, as the voice of the work as construct so easily becomes a tool of the language and ecology of place it works in. I like singing, I like hearing song, I even like writing poems as songs. But I will not sing-along with the faux-lyricists who see it as a mode of linking 'real' feelings with undifficult ‘musicality’ (while denying 'ideas' — the craft movement in australian poetry is anti-intellectual in so many ways), with the damned beautiful rhythms of life (producing what I hear as a kind of muzak!). That's not about what’s inside people, it's about advertising what one is given permission to show as being inside oneself. The lyric so easily falls into step with the status quo when it doesn't have to. That's what conventional rhythmics does. It subscribes.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Graphology Elegiacs 1

‘Ecopoetry’ has become an industry sustainable only in terms of its own definitions of ‘sustainable’, in its eagerness to reflect and speak out on failings aside from its own pathetic fallacies of distance. For this, a new and more virulent ‘irony’ needs introducing into the sanctuary: a balancing act that yields higher degrees of sensibility and hard-edged caring. Nature has become its plaything and reputations are recycled through its portals. Computers are the growth medium, air travel its prana.

John Kinsella

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Conversation with John Kinsella -- questions by Roberto Mussapi

This interview recently appeared in an Italian newspaper, in the Italian language.

Why is poetry necessary?

I believe all poetry is political at one level or another, and as such, poetry for me is a form of activism. As an environmentalist, when I write of the natural world I hope that my insights and ‘ways of seeing’ will contribute to the respect for and protection of ecologies. I am not interested in creating poems that hang as artefacts in museums, but in a living, breathing poetry that engages with the environmental crisis that the world faces. As a poet of landscape who is interested in exploring ‘up close’ the particular characteristics and qualities of a place, I hope to act as witness, to prevent damage being done, to preserve. So poetry is entirely necessary as a means of resisting, for example, the horrors of capitalist exploitation of land, of the pollution and exploitation of industrialisation, and other such examples of greed. My poems see the damage being done, and bring it to the attention of readers. Yet it’s not a case of propaganda, but of letting the images and language of the poems stimulate awareness, curiosity, and investigation. As a vegan-anarchist-pacifist, I have very strong feelings and ideas about how we might respect, conserve and experience the world we live in, especially the natural world, and I find poetry a more effective means of articulating these positions than the process of constantly being arrested and locked up, as I was when I was a young activist. Peaceful resistance still has an important place in my life, but I find poetry has been a truly effective means of communication.

Is there a relation between poetry and hope?

For me, poetry is entirely about hope. I actually once contributed poems to an anthology published by an Icelandic poet, which I think was called something like The Book of Hope. When I draw attention to what I have called ‘the damage done’ — to the exploitations, cruelties, and greed of humanity — it is because I believe that there’s another way, that people don’t have to be those things, and are very often not. Poetry becomes a superb ‘lens’, a way of focussing concern for positive change. I am strongly supportive of indigenous land rights around the world, and I come from a place where the indigenous people have had their land stolen with little if any compensation. Indigenous and non-indigenous poets who draw attention to this wrong (doing so in a variety of ways), have formed an essential part of broader community discourses that raise awareness about these wrongs. All nations want a literary ‘tradition’, and want literature they can show the world: if that literature (and for me, especially poetry), constantly speaks of the wrongs of theft of land, dispossession, inequality and exploitation, as well as speaking of the strength and cultural richness of dispossessed and disempowered communities, then external pressure can bring positive change. No country likes to feel embarrassed by what its writers are saying to the rest of the world. Poetry is all about hope to me. I have seen it stop bulldozers (I wrote an article about this once), and I have used it to help stop developments that would have put rare species of plants at risk. Poetry, for me, is an extension of how we live, and projects into how we might live better.

Can poetry contribute to a renaissance of humankind?

Of course — it always has. In doing my ‘distractions’ of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I tried to connect with one kind of eruption of insight into the torments and delights of the human soul with a need for another such eruption of awareness about the impacts humans have had on the planet. There are criticisms in there, of course, but also celebrations. For me, a new renaissance is an environmental one: if we do not act now to lessen the damage being done, there will be no planet, and no people to renew. Really, we are on the verge of needing a New Classicism which is about a more harmonic relationship with the natural world, and taking as models for art and existence, those from ‘nature’ that have persisted so effectively for so long. Which is not to deny there should be change or ‘development’, but rather, that this change might be more organic and less damaging, more in keeping with the ‘natural’ progress and changes of the biosphere, rather than those being forced at a rapid pace by humans. In this New Classicism is an acceptance that the rapid climate change we are now experiencing is in large part because of human industry and behaviour, and that less industrialisation, less reliance on energy for fuelling devices and other commercial fetishes, will mean a better life for all living things.

Do you think there is a relation between the poetic and the sacred spheres?

For me, poetry always contains a spiritual aspect. I write about spirituality, but I do not belong to any religion. I believe in all religions, and in no religions. I do not think a religious administration can conduct the workings of the human soul — if anything, I think it can take away and diminish the spirit. I have known many good people in various positions of religious authority — people whom I respect — but I cannot respect any edifices of power. As a non-violent anarchist, I am against centralisation and concentrations of power, and too often religion becomes these. Interestingly, many of my favourite poets, from Dante to Milton, have had ‘religion’ as a core concern, so it’s something about which I think and write, but I am always arguing that the human (or animal) spirit needs to find its own direction and its own freedom. Enlightenment can come about in many ways, and most often outside doctrine. Observing the natural world, listening to an old local farmer tell his life, watching the sun rise or set, are for me far more informative than rituals which have become hollow through being enforced and being offered as the ‘right’ way. Sometimes the ‘wrong’ way is more enriching! Poems are rarely perfect, and their ‘wrongs’ are sometimes as informative and spiritual as their ‘rights’. An imperfection in rhythm or prosody in general, something ‘misdescribed’, something misheard or misunderstood, can come across in a poem as a revelation, a new insight. The errors are as important as the ‘correct’ ways of doing things. No structure is perfect; all are worth pulling to bits and rebuilding as long as no living thing is hurt in the process. Vive la diffĂ©rence!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Remembering the great Russian-language poet Regina Derieva, 1949-2013

Epistle to Regina Derieva

In Memoriam

I’m looking at your favourite icon, Regina,
an icon painted by your husband, Alexander,
an image of ‘The Virgin Eleousa’, made for
Discalced Carmelites, that closed and solitary
order, that retreat to awareness and love
where the self dissolves into complexities
of community, devotion and scripture.
Child born with an old head on young
shoulders, travelling the hard miles
from Kazakhstan to Jerusalem, mapping
houses and families, mapping the godless
and the god-filled, baggage heavy with conversion
but carried over borders, declared at every
crossing: a slippage, a parsing, God loud
in-absentia, those ‘distance measures’,
that tinnitus you don’t want to get rid of.
The stars can be so glib in their night skies,
and yet they keep company, work the light.
In translation your words read our words,
words I am as familiar with as my ‘outdoors’,
the birds and animals and plants I see
and note down — remade to grow a familiarity,
to fly in the lines of an icon, a wry liturgy
of making the days count. You still complete
the space we listen for, that telegraphic
whispering across vastness, so much part
of exile, that much-leavened ‘annihilation
of distance’. I can only say ‘God’ in colours:
the vivid reds, illuminating yellows, defining
blues taking comfort in wrapping the world
as we might know it. But it’s the hands that wrap
around a grave, the hollow we fill with lives;
all our flesh, all our people. My wife was once
a Carmelite postulant across the hottest months,
when fire spread within the walls, rare
bush conserved, or a garden spade was thrust
through a boot, a doctor called from the outside,
laughter at the painful absurdity. You’d
get the irony, the grimness, the art —
beyond a photograph, deep in the icon
where your words came from.

John Kinsella